I had just finished to write an article dealing with the AC-27J Gunship Lite program, when I received a news article about the approval, granted by the Pentagon, for the purchase of 16 AC-27J aircraft equipped with either a 30 mm or 40 mm gun by the AFSOC (Air Force Special Operations Command). The aircraft, that should was (officially) designated AC-27 Stinger II (nickname inherited by the AC-119K Stinger that was employed in the Vietnam to shot ground targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail that replaced the AC-47 Spooky), will be able to use stand off munitions and PGM (Precision Guided Munitions) as the GBU-44/B Viper Strike bomb, a GPS-aided laser guided weapon. The purchase of 16 AC-27J by the AFSOC is not the only important news about the “Spartan”. The name of the “undisclosed” country that along with the Bulgarian, Hellenic, Italian, Lithuanian, Romanian Air Forces and US.Armed Forces has ordered 4 C-27Js was finally unveiled today. Bringing the total to 121 aircraft sold so far, Morocco, the first country outside NATO theatry will use the Italian aircraft in airlift missions. As everybody knows, the C-27 is a derivative of the Alenia G.222 a medium-sized transport aircraft that in various versions served with the Aeronautica Militare and that was also sold to the USAF as C-27A. Despite celebrating an official ceremony to celebrate its ceremony, the Italian Air Force has not completely retired the G.222 yet, since at least two aircraft are still flying with the 14° Stormo, based in Pratica di Mare. One of the them is the G.222VS (Versione Special), the only Italian SIGINT aircraft; the other is used for training purposes and to keep crew’s currencies and qualifications. As part of the contract for the new C-27Js, the other G.222s that were retired by the ItAF were returned to Alenia and they have been offered abroad. Some airframes (30) were cannibalized for spares while other were given to Lagos and Nigeria, while 18 aircraft among the airframes in flight conditions (22 in 2007) will be delivered to Afghanistan. As part of a $287 million contract signed at Robins AFB at the end of Sept., 16 aircraft, refurbished and 2 will be converted in VIP configuration will be delivered to the Afghanistan Goverment between Sept. 2009 and year 2011. The G.222/C-27A will replace the ageing 5 AN-32 aircraft.
The aircraft has STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) capabilities that are suited for tactical airlift missions and MEDEVAC (Medical Evacuation) sorties on short landing strips. A kind of mission that the G.222 outstandingly performed during INTERFET mission in E Timor as I explained in the following article published in September 2000 issue of Air Forces Monthly.
“Saving East Timor – the Italian assistance”
One of the most known Italian shortcomings is to react to the international crisis, requiring decisive and quick decisions, with the slackness caused by the often critical internal situation. In the past, Italian intervention in peace-keeping operations, was delayed by political struggle between majority supporting the Government and the opposition. This is somehow difficult to understand because, as showed in Allied Force, this country owns today experienced crews and good equipment. This aspect of the Italian management of international tensions was finally overcome in the recent E Timor crisis. Timor is a small island belonging to the archipelago of Indonesia, 16,000 kilometers from Italy, a region where national interests are very little. However, as the images of the violence being perpetrated in that region entered the houses of the Italians, the Government immediately started to think to a mean to halt the wild fighting. Despite having the great majority of the operative and effective force abroad, in Kosovo, Albania, Bosnia and Macedonia, personnel, tanks, ships and aircraft from the three Armed Forces were immediately inserted in the multi-national peace-keeping force organization. The 187th Regiment Parachuters “Folgore”, the 1st Rgmt “Tuscania”, the S. Giusto transport ship (carrying also escorting helicopters SH-3D) and G-222s from the 46th Aerobrigata represent the Italian contribution to the INTERFET, the International Force for E Timor, and the Operation Stabilise.
Italian Air Force reaches Australia
Within the Aeronautica Militare Italiana, there’s only a Stormo (Wing) tasked with the long range and tactical transportation. It is the 46th Aerobrigata (Air Brigade) at Pisa. It is equipped with both C-130 and G-222 that have landed almost everywhere in the globe, from South America to the Antarctic Continent. The longest trips are always flown by the Hercules, that can carry much materials and men and have longer endurance. However the particular E Timor scenario needed a tactical transport aircraft, with STOL (Short Take OFF and Landing) capabilities and enough loading space to board pallets and soldiers. This meant the Alenia G-222 were about to undertake their longest trip: from Pisa to Darwin AB, the location chosen as the main base for INTEFET flights, as it is the most northern one, only 250 NM from Timor Island coasts. One of the worrying of the planners was the number of vaccines needed by crews to safely operate in an unsafe region. The main problem was the awful Japanese Encephalitis whose vaccine, the J.E.VAX, required 3 giving and 24 days before becoming effective. Also the Malaria and Red Fever were supposed to be a threat in the region. Fortunately, there have been just one case of Japanese Encephalitis and some of Malaria so far.
All material needed to build the ItAF detachment was carried on Sept. 20th by C-130s of 50th Gruppo. The creation of the Italian logistic area, hosting 24 people in containers loaned from Australians where an operative Squadron Operation Room (SOR) was reproduced, was particularly long as flights to the area with the Hercules, lasted some 3-4 days (Darwin time is the Australian East Standard Time-1,5 hr thus flying towards Australia caused the pointer of the clock to be put 8 hours and half forward) and a week was behind before they could be back to Pisa. Some support flights to Australia were also performed by B-707TT of the 8th Gruppo, belonging to the 14th Stormo within the 9th Brigata Aerea based at Pratica di Mare. The G-222 arrived on October 7th after a trip crossing 4 continents that comprised intermediate landings at Luxor (Egypt), Abu Dhabi (UAE), Bombay (India), Colombo (Sri Lanka), Phuket (Thailand) and Surabaya (Java).
The aircraft were inserted in the ICAW (INTERFET Combined Airlift Wing) composed by 17 aircraft, all C-130 but 2 German C-160 “Transall”, belonging to 8 countries (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, Thailand, United Kingdom and United States).
For the first 10 days of deployment, no sorties were flown by G-222 for INTERFET tasks. Liaison flights to Townsville, where Italian Army Parachuters were based, and some local training sorties to familiarize with the areas surrounding the airport characterized the first days. Considering the relatively small amount of flights, unlike Allied Force, when US and Allied military controllers were assigned to ATC units to make coordination more fluent when air traffic became very heavy, no foreign liaison personnel was needed in the ATC, Weather forecasting and Medical services that were all managed by the Australians.
In particular, good weather forecasting was paramount at Darwin since Northern Australia weather is characterized by the Monsoon.
There are two kind of Monsoons: the wet one, in the September-February period, and the dry one, from March to August. Rainfall rate aside, that is extremely high in the wet season, the Monsoons create a particular concentration of hurricanes. These are very strong and one of them, “Tracy” in 1974, completely destroyed Darwin. For these reasons, an evacuation plan was immediately showed to the Italian personnel and also some training exercises were played. The plan foresaw all the aircraft to be deployed to other bases according to the weather conditions over them.
The daily activity
Everyday activity on the other side of the globe, begins at 7:30 AM with the departure of the INTEFET shuttle flights to Timor. The G-222, positioned in one of the two parking stands allocated to the ItAF detach., take off with a separation of 15 minutes from the following shuttle flight in a so called “slot time”. Daily activity is performed by a single G-222 per time thus giving the crews and airframes some time to rest; both aircraft fly seldom together and special clearances are to be coordinated for formation flights. Personnel and materials from various nations are carried to 3 airports out of 4 in the Timorese Island. Italy is the only nation to have scheduled flights to 3 airstrips. Flying with hand-held GPS, the India November Tango (callsign of INTERFET aircraft) flights reach the capital town Dili, in the North of Timor. Their internal fuel tanks are filled to the maximum capacity because no refuel is foreseen on the ground at Timor. Seen from the cockpit, E Timor seems only a great mountain, Mt Mundo Perdido (3,000mt) in its middle, surrounded by thick clouds. An eye is always kept on the radar that is very useful to avoid entering IMC in the big Cumuli Nimbus that are sometimes large as an Italian region.
Komoro-Dili airstrip, 2 hours flight-time from Australia, has a 1,800mt asphalt runway and it is surrounded by sea. Some helicopters from the World Food Program and United Nations aircraft are based there. The second airstrip reached flying Est-bound for 30 minutes is Baucau, also lying on the northern coast. Baucau is located on a plateau. It is a weird airfield built by Indonesia; completely isolated, with no fences surrounding it, it is not easy to understand why somebody should have projected a so wide base in a desert area. It seems that it could be used as an ideal forward operating base for an invasion of Australia. Today is the headquarters of the Thailand base. When the aircraft approaches the airstrip, armed soldiers move in “key” positions to protect it. In fact, Baucau is one of the “hot spot” in E Timor. Some of the worst fights took place here. The runway is a bit longer than the Komoro airport one, but it is so often “crossed” by buffalo and cows (with consequent delays in take off procedures) that the ItAF PIO Lt Babini, nicknamed it “Baucow”. The third lag of flight makes the G-222 reaching Suai airstrip after a second landing at Dili. Personnel on ATC facilities at both Baucau and capital city are Australian. Suai is the most Eastern airport, 25 minutes of flight from Dili and it is the nearest landing strip to W. Timor and consequently the one holding the highest threatcon level. Its 905mt runway is so short that no other aircraft of the ICAW are allowed to land in the airstrip that is completely surrounded by jungle. Unlike other Timorese airports, where ATC services are provided by Australian controllers, there are no ATC facilities available at Suai and armed helicopters frequently patrol the area. It is the base of the Malaysian and “Kiwi’s” (NZ) contingents. As all landing strip have been reached, “I-N-T” flights fly from Suai directly to Darwin, that is reached in less than two hours, and land there approximately at 3:30-4:00 PM. Flight activities are not performed later in the afternoon by G-222 because of weather conditions, always worsening. Torrential rains and thunderstorms are common features for Darwin autumnal nights.
Keeping an operative force alive at the antipodes was a great challenge for the Aeronautica Militare Italiana. At the time of writing, Italian AF detach. has flown more than 161 flights in 45 missions with 1,300 passengers ferried and 142 tons of material carried. The mission, not only the Italian one, but the whole Stabilise and Warden (Australian operation), has been a success so far and planners think we are a step away from peace in the E Timor region. Next challenge is to help the 150,000 refugees to safely reach their houses. With its main goals reached, the INTERFET contingent will be reduced in the following months. While many Armed Forces will gradually leave the beautiful Australian landscapes, the Italian Air Force flag will remain on the Australian soil and pilots will exploit G-222 and C-130 to their limits to help the refugees and, at the same time, to carry Italian soldiers back to Italy. Likely, new forces are about to be taken on charge for the new millennium challenges: C-130J and C-27J.
© David Cenciotti